Friday, 31 May 2019

Seoul, Day Three - Serious and silly

With thanks to Air New Zealand for this famil

Today guide Sue really came into her own. She rearranged our programme to avoid the crowds, took us straight to the important bits, and showed us fun things we would certainly have missed on our own. Plus, she talked to us candidly and thoughtfully about South Korea's history and politics, and gave our fleeting visit to Seoul much more depth than it would otherwise have had.

We started the day by driving across the Han River to the northern part of the city, and up Namsan, a steep and wooded hill, to the N Seoul Tower. The tower itself is 240m high, and has a great view of Seoul, which is vast - and also surprisingly green, despite all the apartment buildings and towers. And all around are rocky peaks and wooded hills, much of it well-used national parks. The observation deck (enclosed) has windows with helpful captions on - and also foreign city names and distances, on the appropriate sides. It was, I confess it, a thrill to see Auckland and Wellington included (we are very used to New Zealand being overlooked). Sue pointed out the sights, including surviving sections of the ancient city wall, and then took us to the toilets - honestly, the most fun bit of all. The cubicles' outer walls are glass, so you can sit there and gaze down at the city nearly 500m below - which might help with proceedings, possibly. Or the opposite.

Outside there was a section for the cliché lovers' padlock thing, completely over the top and really just a photo op - of which there were many today. It's early summer here and the trees are in fresh leaf, with a beautiful cluster of bronze maples contrasting with the green. Sue said in autumn the hill is at its busiest - very beautiful, but more visitors than leaves. As we walked back down to the car, we were delighted to hear, and see, a cuckoo calling loudly above us.

Then we headed along the motorway out of the city, past the World Cup stadium from 2002, through the DMC - Digital Media Centre, that tells you a lot about South Korea's economy - and under a bridge with a huge billboard on it depicting futuristic-looking soldiers. I thought it was a video game ad, but it's actually promoting the army, and the bridge itself is designed to be blown up in case of invasion from the north, to prevent entry to the city. Sobering stuff, and an appropriate introduction to our focus for the day: the DMZ.

After a fresh and dainty multi-course lunch served in small dishes at a pretty little fusion restaurant Sue chose, we continued along beside the Han River into the country past neatly-planted rice paddies. All very rural and pleasant - but then we turned to follow the Imjin River, which is separated from the road by a continuous high wire fence topped with coils of razor wire, with regular security cameras on high poles, and wooden guard huts, all facing north. It looked distinctly grim, so it was disconcerting to stop next at a funfair with rides and games. But that was where we transferred to our bus to the DMZ, in which, after passport checks and head counts, we drove over the Unification Bridge, zigzagging round a series of barriers at each end.

Our first stop was at the futuristic Dorasan railway station which was built to serve passengers travelling between South and North Korea, and, eventually enable people to travel by train from Seoul all the way to Paris. But of course politics have got in the way, it's been repeatedly opened and closed, and currently sits unused, a sad symbol of hope and the unfulfilled dream of unification. Inside there's a display of framed photographs showing leaders' handshakes and grins - but no progress.

The bus then took us to the Dora Observatory, a sleek and modern building on top of a hill, where Sue whisked us up to the open area on the roof with a row of telescopes. We looked across rolling green countryside and the river into North Korea, to a distant city and beyond it wooded hills, all hazy in the sunshine. We could see the South's tall flagpole, and the North's even taller one. It was just countryside, the same on each bank of the river, the north not bristling with fortifications, or laid bare - just a continuation of what is, or should be, the same country.

It was all a little anticlimactic, to be honest. I'd expected soldiers, guns, bare earth, fortifications, but more than anything it was a slick tourist operation, efficiently shuffling hundreds of visitors through newly-built halls every day. There was one soldier - a life-size cutout in fatigues, for posing with. If we'd been able to visit the JSA - Joint Security Area - where the blue buildings are and the table that straddles the border, it would have been more dramatic; but it's more often than not closed to the public, and was today.

Back on the bus, we were taken next to Tunnel 3, where Sue rushed us into a theatre to catch most of an excitable video telling the story of the discovery of four tunnels dug from the north, as a means of sneaking south to invade. There were maps with arrows, converging lines, and explosions over Seoul, and the bald statement that there are without doubt other undiscovered tunnels. And then the narrator suddenly switched to saying how the wildlife had benefited from the 4km-wide exclusion zone, where the animals and birds can flourish undisturbed. So that's all right, then.

We left all our gear in a locker, got helmets, and set off down the steeply sloping chute that's been dug to take visitors to a section of the original tunnel. This is roughly hacked out of the stone, with yellow paint showing where the dynamite used in their construction has been detected. The tunnel was narrow, steep, low, damp and claustrophobic, with every so often disturbing perspex cases of gas masks for emergency use. Right at the bottom was a concrete wall, and an electronic counter showing the number of days since the Armistice in 1953 - it read 24,000-something. There was also a security camera, which swivelled as not one, but two men took their forbidden cellphones out of their pockets, and took forbidden photos.

Of course - remember, I used to be a teacher, and rules are rules - I told Sue on them when we rejoined her at the top, and she told the guards, but they had missed seeing it on the bank of TV screens above them, so the perps got away with it. Peeving - I would have liked to take photos myself, but instead I did as I was told.

Naturally, we exited the DMZ through the gift shop, where we could have bought bags of DMZ rice, or DMZ soybeans, or packs of DMZ chocolate, or DMZ anything else, it seemed. Commerce rules, after all.

And that was that for the Demilitarised Zone. We drove all the way back into Seoul again, having a long and interesting talk with Sue about Korea's past, present and ideal future, and learning lots of unexpected facts - for instance, that young men in the south must do 18 months in the army, but in the north, it's ten years, and seven for women. And you have to dress neatly to visit the JSA because North Korea likes to take photos of people in fashionably-distressed jeans to show their people how badly the West is doing. We got stuck, inevitably, in traffic as we neared the city again - but were compensated by low golden sun lighting up the splendid bridges across the Han, the riverside parks where people played basketball and tennis, and walked their dogs, and lit up the tower blocks and wonderfully varied skyscrapers. It was a beautiful evening, and entirely compensated for the traffic jams.

It made us late, though, so it was a rush to get out for dinner at Bamboo House, the venue that had made Sue audibly gasp when we told her about it yesterday. We did a bit of gasping ourselves on the taxi ride there: we'd been stuck motionless in a jam for quite some time, and were cheerfully chatting amongst ourselves when the driver suddenly snapped and, without saying a word, suddenly wrenched the car onto the other side of the road, nearly collecting a pedestrian, and shot through an narrow gap, ending up nose-to-nose with another car coming the other way. It was a stand-off, then the other car backed off and our driver gunned away and around a corner to the restaurant, which was fortunately not far away. 

But all was calm and friendly at Bamboo House, where we were shown into a separate room with a long table set with barbecue grills. We were served entrées of bean soup, salad, pancakes and sauces, and then the main course arrived: two sorts of steak cooked by our chatty waiters (one of whom had lived in Auckland), cut up with scissors and served, sizzling, to us. Delicious. And of course the traditional drink of soju helped - 25% proof rice wine mixed with beer. I would happily have stopped at the steak, but then came noodle soup and dried fish, and finally yoghurt with berries.

It had been a long day, and we were now full to bursting, but it wasn't bedtime yet. Karaoke is a Korean obsession, and so we wandered along the busy street to find a karaoke bar. The first one required that we bought two bottles of whisky to hire the room and equipment, but the second was more reasonable and we had beers in a dark room with a spangly light, a screen and remote, two microphones and two tambourines. It was my first karaoke experience but the others were old hands, and we were soon scoring as high as 99 with songs from Abba to A-ha, by way of the Beatles and Beyoncé. It was fun, but one session was enough for two of us and we headed home, courtesy of yet another crazy taxi driver, while the others kept going, went to bars, were amazed by the increasing crowds of young people on the streets as the night wore on, and equally shocked by the drunkenness, and finally got back to the hotel at 3am.

Sad in Seoul

Oh dear. I've just woken up here in Seoul, and heard on RNZ radio news about the sightseeing boat sunk on the Danube in the centre of Budapest, killing seven South Korean tourists, with 21 still missing, currently. That's a bunch of connections I'd rather not have had.

I've both done a similar sightseeing cruise in Budapest - during the day, up the river, under those impressive bridges, past the magnificent Parliament building, possibly even in the Mermaid itself, it's entirely possible - and also begun a Danube cruise there on a river boat like the one that hit the smaller vessel. My cruise was with Avalon, but Viking is a company I'm familiar with, having recently had a few days on board one of their ocean cruisers, Viking Sun, from Auckland to Wellington. I can so very easily imagine it all happening - that is one busy river. And also one that has seen so much human tragedy, much of it caused by people, just like today.

Of course the local news on TV is all over it - all the passengers were from South Korea - and everyone here will be shocked and saddened. What a horrific thing to happen. I'm so sorry.

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Seoul, Day Two - Gangnam and style; also not

With thanks to Air New Zealand for this famil

The Newshub people were out early to do news at the DMZ so it was just Monique and me today being shown around Seoul by the lovely Sue. Our first stop was the Geongbok Palace. It's grand and spacious and put me very much in mind of Beijing's Forbidden City - same pagoda-type building with curled-corner roofs, intricately painted and carved inside, and surrounded by great open spaces behind high walls. Our arrival was timed for the daily changing of the guard which took place with the usual sort of ridiculously elaborate ceremony that men do so like to get deeply solemn about, wherever you are in the world. So there were long, colourful robes and hats with pheasant feathers sticking up, big flags on poles, a band with a conch, trumpets and drums, and solemn marching about in the courtyard.
To be honest, I was much more taken by all the women, and some men, in traditional Korean dress in the audience. They did look gorgeous, in their long full skirts and fitted tops, all flouncy and beaded and pretty colours. Some had hats too, and most wore very sensible sneakers underneath all that finery. I asked Sue why they were all dressed up, and she said, a bit derisively, "For the selfies" - and it's true, there was a great deal of that going on.

We went on through the Palace, past another pagoda in an artificial lake with carp in it, and on through the grounds and finally out the other side, where we saw the Blue House that's the President's residence, all set about with white-gloved guards in little guard houses. We walked on, along an avenue of ginkgo trees and flagpoles ringed with baskets of petunias, all very neat and colourful and tidy. Sue meantime gave us lots of history, ancient and more modern, perfectly candid and open.

We walked up then through an even older part of the city, Bukchon Hanok village, where 14th century traditional houses have been gentrified inside and are lived in by rich people. We climbed up stone steps along narrow alleys draped with the usual Asian tangle of power lines, with pots of peppers and greens flourishing outside the houses, and it was all very pretty. So pretty, that it's become a tourist must-do - which is, of course, why we were there ourselves - to the irritation of the residents, especially when said tourists are Chinese. So there are notices everywhere telling visitors to be quiet, in fact to whisper, and there are actual official hushmen, and women, employed to stand on corners shushing people who talk too loudly.

Next Sue took us to Gwangjang Market, which is a network of narrow streets covered over and pedestrianised, where everything imaginable is sold, but mainly food. Well, that was our focus anyway, it being lunchtime by now, and we drooled over all the stalls being manned by neatly-dressed women with bright lipstick, who smiled and flapped menus at us and offered samples. It really did look delicious - all manner of fried foods, and salads, all freshly cooked and crispy. Sue took us to her favourite, where we sat on plastic stools and were served the specialty mung bean pancakes - much more delicious than that might sound - and ground pork ones too, served with kimchi and raw onions in soy. Really nice, and washed down with cloudy rice beer.

It was good that we ate before continuing our tour, which took us next to the part of the market called Raw Beef Alley: exactly as described, where people were tucking eagerly into plates of raw mince with a raw egg in the middle, and other less easy to describe dishes. There were live octopuses in small tanks, all manner of fermented food piled up, meals ready to take home to cook, baskets of spices, mung beans being freshly ground and kneaded - and everywhere people perched on stools and benches, being served straight from the wok or barbecue. All super-authentic.

Our next stop was Garosugil Street, to wander along looking at the beautifully displayed fashion, bags, shoes and fripperies there - colourful, minimalist, artistic. We went into one pop-up demonstrating the new Samsung TV that was so like a fairground show that we expected to pay money: lights, mirrors, screens, clever devices. There was so much to look at along the street, it was a real entertainment too. And everything looked so beautiful that even a non-consumer like me could almost have been tempted.

The tour then morphed into a K-pop homage. Now, of course you know, dear regular 😃 reader, that I have my finger welded to the pulse of popular culture, but I do have to confess that, apart from being vaguely aware of BST, I'm not up with K-pop. Of course it's huge here, and Gangnam (say it with a K, not a G) is the centre of this culture, especially K-Star Road, which is lined with big shiny doll mascots named after the most famous bands. We went into SMTown, which is five floors of K-pop memorabilia - interactive photo booths, larger-than-lifesize posters, a museum, displays of awards, photo galleries of stars, 3D printed miniatures, pop videos and, of course, a shop. It's an industry, truly.

Finally, we wandered through the huge mall beneath the hotel, which is confusing and includes a 16-screen cinema (the Korean movie industry is also huge) and an aquarium as well as big-name shops from all over - and an amazing public library donated by the management, with books free to read on site, but not borrow. It was very well-used, and looked amazing. And then it was time for a rest at the hotel where, to my horror, I discovered the chambermaid had left all the lights turned on in my room including, total mystery still, the ceiling ones over the bed.

Later: inspired by the essential need not to sleep tonight under dual spotlights, I did eventually track down the controls for those two lights: not a regular wall switch like all the others but, sneakily, separate buttons on the alarm clock by the bed, labelled in tiny writing. I mean, really? Tch.

Dinner tonight was at Dosa, a low-profile and quite small modern restaurant down below street level, which was my first-ever Michelin-starred experience. It was pleasing that as we were seated, Lorde was playing, and then we were straight into choosing which tasting menu we fancied. Shockingly, both featured, as course #2, guess what? Only raw beef with raw egg yolk. Officially, there were nine courses - which we accompanied with a bottle of very nice Argentinian Malbec - but several others were slid in, starting with a little cone of something containing fois gras and topped with candy floss, which was a worryingly bizarre combination. The presentation throughout was imaginative and fun, incorporating at various points lights, flowers and a log, and everything looked gorgeous and, happily, tasted great too. Even the raw beef was an interesting mix of flavours, and served much more imaginatively than in the market. The roast octopus was almost delicious enough to make me forget the poor creatures trying to escape their little tanks . My Iberian pork was nice, but I wish I'd chosen the beef all the others had which (I had a taste) was wondrously tender, juicy and flavourful, and closed down the conversation for quite five minutes. The icy noodles that came next were weird, and hard to eat, but then came a pear-shaped mango and coconut sorbet and then a sprinkle of tiny fancies to end it all. Excellent. Thank you, Air New Zealand.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Seoul, Day One - A long way to the loo

With thanks to Air New Zealand for this famil
It feels very weird to have dinner as usual and afterwards sit down on the sofa to start watching our habitual programmes - and then, at 7.30pm, to get into the car and drive to the ferry to begin a journey to South Korea. Bizarre, even. With an overlay of anxiety because the pre-dinner news featured an item about the increasing unreliability of Waiheke ferries, and I really didn't want to fall at the first fence.

The ferry chugged up on time, though, and all was well - until the second fence, the SkyBus to the airport, which simply didn't turn up. The printed timetable promised one at 9pm, but it didn't come, and then I noticed that the electronic sign said the next one would be at 10pm. Phoning for clarification was no good: the help number took me to Melbourne, and the local number I eventually found hidden away simply stated, when rung: "This number cannot respond to calls from mobile phones". Er, what? 

So I stomped off to take a taxi, which was the extortionate rip-off I expected: $94. That's three times the SkyBus return fare, and almost three times what a pre-booked Cheap Cap would cost. Painful. Trust me, complaints are in process.

[UPDATE: Full refund promptly actioned, with apology. Consider me mollified.]

But then it all got better: I met my Air NZ host and Newshub companions, we checked in Premium, and breezed through to the fancy new Koru lounge to wait for our 11.55pm flight to Singapore. Sadly, not in Business class, but Premium Economy which, since my last flight was in Qatar Airways' Business, felt rather more economy than premium. But the seats are wider and more spread out, there's a nice pillow, and though the seat doesn't recline as far as an Eziboy, which is my personal measure of such things,  it does have a footrest and it was still possible to get comfortable enough to sleep adequately. I skipped the dinner that some people opted for - breakfast was nice.
We arrived at Singapore a bit late because of headwinds, and were officially escorted to a buggy to be whisked what seemed miles past endless fancy shops and people looking vacant in massage chairs, to our gate for the Singapore Airlines leg to Seoul. This was, disappointingly, economy class (I KNOW!) and it did feel like it too: an A350,-900, 3:3:3 configuration and very snug seats. Truly, I had no-one next to me, and am neither wide nor tall, but even I felt cramped. The TV screen was so close I had to put my reading glasses on and even then it wasn't comfortable to watch. And, they took half the 7-hour flight to get around to serving dinner, which was an inordinately long delay. Good thing it was worth waiting for - delicious Korean chicken rice. A great omen, I hope.

We landed mid-afternoon, breezed through their big, airy airport and were met by Sue, our local guide, who took us to a minibus with flowered curtains and fringed pelmets above the windows, in which we drove the unexpectedly long way into the city. Like 62km! And Sue was hoping, since we were ahead of the rush-hour, that it would take "Only 90 minutes".

And, in fact, it did: away off the island of Incheon, past many green hills, over the bridge to the mainland, and along the Han River, spanned by a variety of bridges, all impressively engineered and busy with traffic. We passed the Lotte World Tower, looking Shard-like, the stadium built for the 1988 Olympics, which still looms large in the local consciousness, uncountable numbers of tall apartment buildings, lots of trees, and, finally, the vast COEX convention centre which includes our Intercontinental hotel.
It's five-star but, spoilt by my hotel history, my room seemed pretty standard to me - until I went into the bathroom. Well! There it was, my first electric toilet. The first shock was that the seat was heated, but I soon, er, warmed to that idea. I studied the options for washing, and drying, and can report that the process is pleasant, accurate and effective. I shall return; and not just because nature requires it.

For dinner we kind of piked it, going to a recommended US Gastropub in the vast mall beneath the hotel - Devil's Door. It's built like a brick warehouse with a huge screen above the bar, showing a Korean baseball game - it's one of the biggest sports here, who knew? - and served food in battered enamel buckets, that kind of place. We startled the waiter by each of us ordering something, and understood his astonishment when the food arrived (very fast). The portions were huge! But it was all very tasty and we did a valiant job of eating most of it.

Then we popped upstairs to the 30th floor to look at the night view of the city - pretty good - and to have yet another drink, before finally retiring to bed and the day's final unexpected result. You know how there's always one light in a new hotel room that you can't find the switch for to turn off? Always. Sometimes I've had to ring down to reception for help, the switch was so cunningly hidden. Well, tonight, I couldn't find it to turn the ceiling lights above the bed ON. That was novel. And no doubt tomorrow will bring more surprises.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Rotorua Canopy Tours is stoatally different

Ziplines. They're everywhere these days, hardly anybody ever calls them flying foxes any more, and I've done plenty. They're always fun, especially if you do a tandem one with a friend, and I'm always up for another. Because of my trust/lack of imagination issues, I never feel nervous about accidents, and simply enjoy whizzing along, just mildly irritated that I invariably end up going backwards. So it was easy to say yes to trying out Rotorua Canopy Tours recently. 

Of course, with so much competition, there's a strong focus on providing a point of difference, and RCT has two. For a start, they really are up in the canopy - and of not just your boring old pine forest, but between 1000 year-old rimu trees, above a pocket of the scant 5% of virgin native bush left in New Zealand. So that is special - and the engineering is impressive, too. The lines are fitted between the trees with as little trimming as possible, there are elegant spiral staircases up around the trunks of those big old trees, and dainty swing bridges linking the zipline sections. One of these has side-wires only knee height, so that's an enjoyable novelty (you're still safely clipped on to a line overhead). It's all been very well, and sustainably, done - and that's RCT's second focus.
When they started up in 2012, the Dansey Road Scenic Reserve was a shadow of its current self: full of bare branches, empty forest floor, and no birds. RCT set up a vigorous programme of trapping, and in the first two weeks killed over 800 possums, rats and stoats. They kept at it, experimenting with a variety of traps and methods, and decided to concentrate on the NZ-invented self-resetting Goodnature trap (I've got one - so far it's only caught one fat hedgehog, which is officially a pest but I'm still sad about it). Now they have a partnership with DOC, and some of each punter's ziplining fee goes into the fund for keeping the programme going. 

They're rightfully proud of what they've achieved: on my visit, it was visible from the moment we got out of the van. Virgin bush is thick!  I'm used to being able to see through the tree trunks, but here it was a, well, forest of green. Ferns, vines, fungi... and above it all, towering trees thick with leaves and epiphytes. And birds! Noisy, and bold - RCT has a special licence to feed native birds, so I held out my hand with a mealworm on it, and a bouncy little North Island robin flew down to grab it. Cute.
We heard all about the birds we might have seen, if people hadn't been so greedy and careless - moa, Haast's eagle, huia, NI takahe and lots more, all gone extinct in 800 years - and, later, the detail of the company's efforts to preserve what's left. And then we got on with the ziplining - six of them, 1200m altogether, one 400m long, one tandem set, and all way above the forest floor, invisible now under the solid green canopy of tree leaves and tree fern fronds (which are especially beautiful from above: like a crown). 

It was such good fun. There were only three of us - the others were a US couple three days out from their wedding - so we had time to sit on the cliff walk, dangling our feet over the void 50m below, and have a cup of coffee, a biscuit and a chat. The clipping on and off was reassuringly brisk and efficient, Kiwi guides Emily and David were cheerfully laidback and droll, the day was bright and sunny, and the zooming along was exciting. We finished with an 18m controlled abseil, which one of us (not me - you had to ask?) did upside down. 

Rotorua Canopy Tours - recommended.

Saturday, 25 May 2019

The rough before the smooth

I paid for my own travel to last week's TRENZ conference in Rotorua. Last year they flew me down to Dunedin FOC but, since Rotorua is less than a 4-hour drive from Auckland, they laid on a coach from the airport instead. Getting to and from the airport would have cost me more than taking a coach from Auckland Central right into Rotorua, I discovered, so I opted to go by Skip Bus. What a revelation: it cost just $24 return, standard fare, and the bus, far from being the backpacker-level transport I expected, was just your regular, comfortable, long-distance coach, that left on time, had free WiFi, and was super-efficient. Amazing value. Recommended! 

So, anyway, to get some more immediate payback than I'll achieve from my more general begging around the exhibition halls, I arranged to stay an extra night and do some stuff. Said stuff was a zipline outing with Rotorua Canopy Tours in the morning, followed by a treatment at the Polynesian Spa. Excitement followed by relaxation, was the selling-point. Made sense. And it would probably have worked, had I been a more touchy-feely type. Not a big fan of the massage, I have to say. I've had plenty, most of them free, and the only ones I've actually enjoyed and felt beneficial were one delivered by a former sports masseur at Uluru, and the medicinal ones I went to back home after dislocating my shoulder in Norfolk.

All the others were mainly just intensive moisturising sessions, really. A couple made me feel uneasy. Many were physically uncomfortable, and not in a beneficial way. One left me with bruises. This one? It started fine, the usual fluffy robe, hushed lounge, herbal teas. The Spa is right by the lake, surrounded by steam from pools fed by two geothermal springs. There are 28 pools, all different temperatures, some acidic, some alkaline. What I should have done was go for a wallow before the treatment, but there wasn't time (I have done it before - it's lovely).

Instead I was taken to a chilly treatment room and laid out under a towel, wearing disposable knickers, while the oddly-named Dante rubbed an exfoliating mud/kiwifruit pip/ground walnut shell mixture all over me. It was hard to relax, especially when she got to my thighs, where the prodding was painful. Then she slathered on a different mud treatment, which went on nice and warm, but soon cooled, wrapped me in a towel and left me for a while to reflect on the marvel that people pay good money for this. The best bit was then stepping into a hot shower to rinse it all off - that  was glorious. But after that I had to get back on the bench for the moisturising, with honey and lavender, which was ok; and then Dante delivered a scalp massage, which was SO uncomfortable I was gritting my teeth and willing it to be over - but it went on forever. Horrible.

Finally the treatment came to an end and I - of course - said, "Lovely! Thank you, Dante", and scuttled out of there, determined that I will never, never, submit to a free massage again. (Unless it's feet. Foot massages I do enjoy.) And I didn't even get to soak in the pools because it seemed a waste of what would otherwise have been my money to wash all that moisturiser off straight away.

UPDATE: Massages are like childbirth - the pain is soon forgotten in the pleasure of the result. And, regular 😃 reader, there was a result: my skin afterwards, a week later, is still noticeably, delightfully, smooth and soft. I had no idea I'd been so barnacly. All that exfoliation - polish, to use their unexpectedly entirely accurate term - had an actual, empirical, beneficial result. Who'd have thought it?

Friday, 17 May 2019

Not dancing in the dark - much more fun than that

One of the many enjoyable things about working in the travel industry is that even when you're at something as intense and focused as the annual exhibition/conference, there's a lot of fun to be had. I'm sure other types of business do junkets, but I suspect most of them are ostensibly anyway worthy team-building exercises and suchlike. Not us. In tourism it's all about showing people a good time, ideally better than the other suppliers. 
So this week I've been to a couple of parties at the Blue Baths, which were built in 1933 and feature geothermally heated fresh water in an outside pool. There used to be an indoor deep diving pool too, but it's been covered over and is now used for functions like our two. The first one was good, but the second was brilliant - lots of atmospheric theatre smoke drifting about in arty lighting, and an actual theme: earth, air, fire and water. The food stations were in on it - despite the lure of the seafood, the best dish by far were the pulled pork bites with crackling, of which I had far more than my share. The entertainment fitted the themes too. At various points during the evening, groups of local performers emerged out of the shadows to dance for us, and they were very good, especially the semi-traditional Māori haka, which was dramatic and spine-tingling - though the Parris Goebel-style hiphop was excellent too.
Best of all though, was the wind-up function on the last night up at the Skyline. This place is a must-do for any tourist to Rotorua, and I've been there a number of times - but never at night, and never when everything was FREE! We gondola-ed sedately up to discover the hugest feast I've ever encountered - honestly, it just went on and on, room after room. There was one room devoted entirely to cheese, and another to desserts - and it was all there for the taking! 
There was an accomplished DJ mixing her heart out, as well as a programme of live music that included Tiki Taane - so there was dancing (to observe) as well as the eating, the drinking, and the gazing out over the lights of Rotovegas below. Best of all, though, were the rides that people go up there for. First was the Skyswing, where three of us were strapped in and hauled up backwards 50m high. The one in the middle had the release button, which set us loose to zoom down at up to 150km/h in the dark, shrieking fit to bust. It was so much fun, and all over far too quickly for my stomach to organise itself into a protest.
Next I did the luge, choosing the scenic route solely because there were oysters and champagne halfway down. Even though it's the gentler route, you can still go pretty fast if you ignore the Slow signs, and in the dark it felt much faster anyway. There were indeed oysters and bubbles to enjoy, and I did, before remounting my luge to continue to the bottom. 
It was very pleasant, creaking slowly back up on the chairlift, listening to the music and watching the spotlit luge riders rumbling past underneath. Then I did the last activity, which was the zipline. It's 400m and again felt faster in the dark, so it was fun too - but not as exciting as the final thing, which I hadn't known about beforehand. When you get to the platform at the end of the zipline, you're instructed to step off backwards - in the dark - to do a 40m freefall to the bottom. That's freefall as in controlled abseil, naturally, but it did give me a moment's pause before I stepped into the void. Final thrill of the night!

So, well done TRENZ, and well done Rotorua - you're a great combination.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Skiving off

Despite complaining in the last post about the relentless pressure of business hours, business people, and business, I have to concede that the TRENZ organisers are well aware that some of us attendees are delicate flowers, and they timetable an afternoon of activity for us all, away from the halls and their every-20-minutes appointment schedules. My choice from the media selection was the Tarawera Experience, which started with something familiar but then entered literally new territory.
It was as well that I've done a floatplane flight over Mt Tarawera before because, irritatingly, the cloud was too low for us to head over that spectacularly huge split in the mountain from when it erupted in 1886, killing 100+ people and wrecking the local geography. It was disappointing for the others though. We were flying with VolcanicAir, who are very efficient and friendly, even if their choice of "the three lightest people" for the small plane was brutally brisk. The rest of us, and our hurt feelings, piled into the 9-seater, each with a window, and took off across the lake, flying over the lushly green Mokoia Island. 
We hopped over to the next lake, Tarawera, and landed there super-smoothly, in a cloud of spray, and taxied to its edge. We paddled ashore, shoes tucked under our arms, and wandered along to Hot Water Beach, which I had thought only existed on the Coromandel, but no, here was another. It was hot, too - boiling, in fact, and I scalded my big toe briefly.
Then we met Karen of Totally Tarawera, who welcomed us with a karakia and led us on board Sophia, a nice old boat in which we glided across the lake. It was named after the famous Māori guide from back in pre-eruption days, who took tourists to see the world-renowned pink and white terraces. If you think tourism is a relatively recent phenomenon, and also that New Zealand is much too far away for you to even contemplate flying to, consider that in the mid-1800s people came here from Europe by sailing ship - taking at least a couple of months - and then spent a week bumping down-country in a horse-drawn carriage to Rotorua, to hike, in their clunky Victorian clothes, through the bush to see these famous and beautiful glistening silica terraces.
They do look spectacular in paintings from the time - but now, post-eruption, there's no sign of them. After trailing across an isthmus through native bush decimated by Australians - possums chomping the leaves and shoots in the treetops, wallabies gnawing at their bases, and wattles pushing in and crowding the native trees out - we got to Lake Rotomahana where we boarded another boat and were taken to where the terraces used to be, now hidden under the water. All is not entirely lost, since these days there is of course an app that allows you to see, moving the phone around, what would have been the outing's highlight. To be honest, it was a bit underwhelming on a titchy phone screen, and I was more taken by the delicious packed lunch they gave us. There was plenty of good thermal activity along the lake edge to enjoy though, including a small but helpfully reliable geyser.
The last phase of the outing was in a bus along the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, which I might have been to before, but too long ago to remember. It's worth a visit, with an inviting walkway along the valley past a series of pretty impressive thermal lakes. There's a good bus service for shuttling back and forth. Steam wound up through the trees, swirling across lake surfaces, parting and then concealing again the milky turquoise waters. Fumeroles spattered, hot streams splashed over rocks coated red and yellow with minerals, there were hollow gurgles deep inside cracks and caverns. Just your regular Rotorua scenery, then.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

This working life

This week I am at TRENZ, which is the annual tourism jamboree here - on a vastly smaller scale, the equivalent of IPW in the US, which I will be missing again this year (it's going to be in Anaheim, and it will consequently be spectacular). Our event is in Rotorua this time, or Roto-vegas as it's sometimes called. That's because the town is full of things to do, and is a bit tacky and gaudy - plus, it smells, though that's solely a Rotorua thing. There's also a big emphasis on Māori culture, which is another element missing from the Nevada original.

I haven't been here for three years, so it's fun to see it again, wreathed in sulphurous steam from all its thermal activity, and bristling with all sorts of new activities since my last visit. Bristling, but not buzzing, exactly - just ticking over quietly, from what I can see. It is winter, after all. What is buzzing, and humming, virtually seething, is the Events Centre by the lakefront, where more exhibitors than ever are showing off their wares to tourism people from - theoretically - all over the world, but mainly Asia from what I can see. Most of them are agent-type people, but there are media too, and I am one of them.

This is my fourth tourism conference, and it's still a bit of a novelty. This time though I am a lot more practised and brazen about my begging spiel, which essentially amounts to showing selected operators what my stories look like, and then asking for free stuff. I'm quite shameless. What is still hard to get used to, is getting up at 7am and reporting for duty at 9am and then spending the entire day on my feet, talking to people or sitting on a hardish chair listening to moderately dull media presentations. That's not how we freelance writers roll, you know. Or not me, anyway. No, I ease into the day with a morning walk, a leisurely breakfast with the newspaper, and after my habitual coffee and nuts, might sit down at the laptop (in an armchair, in the sun), at about 11am. And then I work solidly till it's time for the 6pm news. Except when I don't, of course. It depends a bit on Twitter.

It's a privileged lifestyle, I know, and I actively (the opposite of actively) enjoy it - especially when I shall return to it after three long days of business hours, business people, and business. It's just plain exhausting. I was going to go on to say something about having forgotten about that kind of working life but in fact, with a history of being a student, a groom and then a teacher, the 9-5 routine has always been foreign to me.I don't know how you, dear regular 😃 reader, do it.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Music and food

I was at a long and very enjoyable Intrepid lunch yesterday where the CEO outlined the company's new focuses for the year ahead and then spent the rest of the meal enthusiastically discussing the (highly unusual) good news about English football teams' achievements in the current Champions League. But there was plenty of travel talk too, since of course everyone there was in the trade in one way or another.

I chatted for a while with someone who'd just got back from the Kimberley in north-west Australia, and we were enthusing about it to someone who hadn't (yet) been. I raved about the bright orange cliffs, the blue, blue sea, and how remote it was, almost impossible to get to by road, but very accessible on a cruise, like the one I did.
Right then, the restaurant's musak launched into a track by Passenger - and no, regular 😃 reader, his professional name is not the tenuous connection I'm trying to make today, and nor is the fact that I've seen him in concert here in Auckland. What is, is that on that cruise on the Kimberley Quest I met a brilliant, and very individual, photographer called Jarrad Seng, who I recommend you follow on Instagram if only for his terrifying, and insouciant, perched-high-with-no-railing photos from buildings and mountains. One of his regular gigs is to be the on-tour photographer for - now, who do you think? 

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Cheering links

We're good with this now, aren't we, regular 😃 reader? Coincidences are standard, connections are daily occurrences, nothing to see here, right? [Er, see here, right.]

Today, it's the announcement that  a weapon-detecting AI system is to be installed in the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch that was the site of the first terror attack on 15 March. It's the first time in the world that it will be used in a place of worship. It was invented in San Francisco - actually, Silicon Valley, so more accurately that would be San Jose - and is already in use in public spaces and (sigh) schools in the US. It apparently notifies authorities within seconds if it identifies a threat.


Since the March attacks, an organisation called Keep Mosques Safe has been set up, and it's they who are funding it for Christchurch. And where is KMS based? In Qatar, where it was the initiative of the chief executive and founder of Al-Ameri International Trading. I'm a bit vague about the function of the company but, now that I've (just!) been to Qatar, I can easily believe it has both enormous funds at its disposal, and some forward-thinking and generous people behind it.


So, Christchurch, San Jose and Qatar, all coming together in a tidy and beneficial bundle.It's very satisfying, and goes a small way towards mitigating what has become, routinely, the spirit-sapping ordeal of reading the world, and domestic, news.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Qatar famil, Day Four - Highs and lows (both literal and figurative)

With thanks to Qatar Airways for this trip

Considering that it was after midnight when we left the hotel, and we had been for three days in passive famil-mode (no independent thought or action required), it was a triumph that when our booked ride to the airport didn't turn up, one of us managed to summon an Uber. It was a minor hiccup, and we were delivered to the First Class/Business Class terminal where we lapsed again into passivity as a nice young lady sat us down while she checked us in, and then took us to the Al Mourjan Business Lounge where some of us fell on the wine - that's figuratively fell, since it's kept in a locked cabinet to which only the attendant has the key.
I wandered off for a quick look at Hamad International Airport, which is very new and shiny and airy, and full of high-end shops - Harrod's! - as well as more useful ones. I was pleasantly surprised to see that WH Smith sells Whittaker's chocolate - NZ's own, if you don't recognise that name, and the best. Plonked in the middle of a huge intersection space was a most unexpected giant teddy bear. Unexpected - and creepy. It's a work by Swiss artist Urs Fischer called Lamp Bear, made of cast bronze with a canary yellow finish. It's 7m high, weighs about 11 tonnes - and its back is pierced by the stand of a lamp that fits over its head like a bonnet, and makes you think irresistibly of an interrogation scenario. It cost $6.8 million, and was bought at Christie's in New York by a member of the Qatari royal family, who presumably thought s/he was doing air travellers a favour by making it their last impression of Qatar.

We continued to sit in the lounge, not giving a thought to anything, when our escort turned up looking a bit agitated and we remembered that, oh yes, we should probably see about getting to the gate - especially since the flight was meant to leave in just half an hour. She hailed a passing electric car for us, while she took, I think, a train, and came running to meet us at the far-distant gate where, presumably with considerable relief, she was able to hand us over.
Our flight back, again on a Boeing 777-200LR, was in the old-style business class, with regular seats in 2:2:2. It actually felt a lot roomier than QSuite, without the walls, but was obviously much less private, so it was just as well my neighbour was a pleasant businessman from Christchurch. To my attendant's disappointment and later concern, I went straight to sleep and managed to snooze most of the way, though I did mollify her by accepting breakfast at one point. This flight was shorter, just the 16-odd hours - not, as you may be thinking, regular 😃 reader, because it's downhill, but because we were flying east, against the rotation of the planet.

We arrived on time around 4am local time, and were lucky to land because of thick fog at Manurewa. I was the sole passenger on the SkyBus into the city, but far from that on the first ferry of the day, which was crammed full with eager people heading to the island for the Waiheke Half Marathon. And then I fell at the last fence because for some reason there were no buses or taxis at Matiatia so I ended my indulgent, luxuriously comfortable trip by literally hauling my suitcase home up and down hills for 3.3km. Welcome back to the real world.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Qatar famil, Day Three - Mainly architecture, plus false feathers

With thanks to Qatar Airways for this trip
Famil itineraries inevitably include such laughable listings as: 'Breakfast at leisure. 9am depart for...' but this morning, body clocks being what they are, we all woke early and met at the buffet with a couple of hours to spare before our first appointment. After a bit of excitement when a metal ceiling sprinkler cap fell unexpectedly from a height of about five metres and hit one of us on the arm (leading to confusion, apologies, the taking of personal details - and then, nothing. Not even a compensatory bowl of fruit), we set off for some private exploring.
Since the other two are proper journalists, they were keen to go and connect with Al Jazeera, or at least visit its nearby tower - but it turned out to be a disappointingly undistinguished building that we didn't even try to enter. On my suggestion, we then walked on to the Sheraton Grand hotel, which was within sight, being scandalised en route by spotting a Western girl wearing a short dress, with bare shoulders. (Apparently you can get away with that sort of thing outside but might be refused entry to some places.)
Well, it was worth the walk in the heat: one of the first developments here, a video in the lobby showed it being constructed in 1978 in the middle of nowhere - a great act of faith. Now, of course, the city has crept around it but, being right by the water, it still has a peaceful feel. It's impressive enough outside, built as a pyramid; but inside it's a dazzling combination of space, angles and curves. Very luxurious, too, as you would expect.
We later got kudos from Yegor for being so energetic, and showing initiative. He is used to his tour guests falling asleep, he said - no reflection on his narration, I promise. He is, incredibly, a keen cyclist, and very happy that all those new roads have intrinsic cycle paths; and he's so optimistic about the new metro currently being constructed that he's sold his car, and is very scathing about the traffic jams we spent a lot of time stuck in today.
Our city tour took us first to The Pearl, an artificial island mostly occupied by expats in apartments, and the upper-end shops targeted at them. How upper-end? Rolls Royce Phantom level, literally. Plus there were lots of private yachts moored along the waterways, air-conditioned shopping/restaurant galleries all differently-themed - Alhambra, Venice... - and immaculate gardens and fountains everywhere. It was like Disneyland for adults. With added Porsches and Ferraris.
There was more of the same in Katara, though more locals-oriented. It's all new, but paying tribute to the past and to the culture - like a beautiful tiled mosque, looming dove-cotes, pointed archways, another mosque in gold glass tiles - and also other cultures, like a full-size Italian marble amphitheatre. 
The idea is you come here to pray, eat, shop and swim, everyone together - and also to enjoy the fine things. Ramadan is coming up soon and, although that means daytime fasting and penitence, at night they party like Thanksgiving and Christmas put together, and all the decorations are going up now. 
This includes actual Christmas-style trees made of Bohemian glass, worth $50,000 each, displayed outside in public areas. Qatar is such a law-abiding place, you see, there's no reason why not. Apparently it's standard for cars to be left unlocked, keys in the ignition, laptops on the seat, and nothing happens. Carolyn puts her handbag down in clothes shops while she browses and everything is always there when she comes back. Astonishing.
We went to the Souq Waqif for lunch so everything was closed, unfortunately - but one thing open was the Falcon Hospital, where you take your bird for replacement feathers, or operations, or medicine. Falconry is huge here - you're even allowed to take yours on board planes with you (though in a cage, I was disappointed to learn).
An unexpected call after that was at the Msheireb Museum, which tells the unvarnished story of slavery in the Arab states - of Africans, of course - which continued up till an unnervingly recent date. We only flitted through, but it looked like a horribly fascinating story.
Next came the Museum of Islamic Art, which used to be the pride of Doha but has just had its nose put out of joint by the National Museum. Still, it's on its own island in the harbour and has a distinctive design, modelled on a burkha. Inside is a classily-displayed collection of calligraphy, carpets, tiles, pottery, jewellery and knives - but most people are drawn outside to the classic framed view across the harbour to the city's skyscrapers. The staircase in the foyer is also deservedly famous.
After a brief rest, we set out in the evening for the classic dhow cruise, which I'd been looking forward to, and which didn't disappoint. It was still hot outside, though, even in the darkness with the breeze - so, more of a fan-assisted oven effect - but the views of the illuminated skyscrapers were brilliant. 
We glided along, as jet skis and jet boats whizzed past (one got stopped by the water police) to The Pearl again, its date palms all lit up, and then a small boat delivered our dinners - spicy kebabs and rice - which we ate as we cruised back again, listening to Arab music that was both hypnotic and incredibly drawn out - a song can last 10-15 minutes.
Back at the hotel, which was buzzing with expats, as well as locals in white robes (men) or black (women), all out enjoying Thursday (= Friday) night entertainments, we went to our rooms to rest and prepare for our long, long journey home. Which begins at 2.25 tomorrow morning.

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